Libya remains roiled by instability after more than a decade of a murky “transition” that has side-tracked its political journey, as turmoil persists despite concerted efforts to course-correct.
One unfortunate casualty of this seemingly permanent mess is the role of political parties within the context of the country’s now deeply convoluted sociopolitical background — a prospect consistently inviting consternation among the country’s volatile factions that have come to depend on pervasive uncertainty to insulate themselves from the transparency and accountability in a stable democracy.
For decades, Libya was dominated by one-party rule, and this has created an aversion to the idea of political organization as part of a process to form a distinct polity around hard-fought-for civil liberties. This, coupled with a deeply rooted culture of tribalism and localism, represents a substantial barrier to the acceptance and growth of political parties, let alone the inclusive, collaborative culture they can inspire.
In spite of the hesitation among Libya’s self-serving, ruling elite, it is critical to recognize that a functional political party culture could be instrumental in efforts to consolidate the democratic transition and the unification of the state.
Political parties are absolutely essential, in any democratic system, to represent a variety of interests and provide policy alternatives, which is something that is urgently needed given the diversity of societal groups, interests and perspectives in post-Qaddafi Libya. They also serve as a mechanism through which citizens can voice discontent and wield their influence, from their decisions at the ballot box to active civic engagement, in a structured and effective manner.
After all, the Arab Spring that precipitated the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi was driven primarily by a quest for democracy, the pursuit of civil liberties, and the establishment of state structures that invite, rather than repudiate, civic participation. Regardless of the disarray in the country today, this demand still persists among the Libyan public.
A successful democracy mandates the presence of a diversified political party system that represents Libya’s diverse voices and concerns. The establishment of political parties could prove pivotal in achieving these aims, especially if any such aspirations dispense with idealism and learn from the failures and inadequacies that doomed Tunisia’s bid for democracy.
However, the prevailing power deficit in Libya has only splintered and caused more turmoil. The establishment of formal political parties could impose some much-needed structure and help regulate this chaos, thereby facilitating effective governance. Within such a framework, political parties can, and should, serve as platforms for policy discussions, decision-making and public opinion mobilization.
The international community’s zeal for that kind of structured governance, after Libya’s decade-long paralysis, is evident, and a democratic transition endorsed by the UN Support Mission in Libya and the EU might deliver the necessary platform for instituting an enduring political party culture.
However, the formation and implementation of this externally mandated, and curiously managed, agenda has left a lot to be desired in recent years, UN Special Envoy Abdoulaye Bathily’s plans notwithstanding.
The establishment of political parties is a necessary but not in itself sufficient condition for the emergence of an effective and responsible political system. Political parties cannot be created overnight; they need to be nurtured, groomed and developed over time.
To succeed, they need to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of broader society, remain open to learning from their mistakes and failures, as well as successes, and build credibility by delivering on their promises.
But they can also be a game-changer. A robust political party culture has the capacity to overcome identity politics and foster political dialogue that is inclusive, open and responsive to diverse, even competing, interests.
Political parties also have a key role to play in the development of an enabling environment for democratic governance, through active participation in public policy debate and electoral competition.
Clearly, there are numerous upsides to pursuing a distinct political party culture, even one that can function effectively despite the idiosyncrasies in Libya. However, aspirational endeavors such as this must also remain grounded in a rather disappointing, post-Arab Spring reality, as seen in other parts of the Maghreb and Sudan.
In Libya’s specific case, it is crucial to be aware of the country’s unique historical relationship with political parties. Past experiences have led to widespread mistrust in large-scale political organizations. Attempts to establish some kind of political party culture have met with resistance from various factions that view the parties as a threat to their autonomy.
Very often, these same groups end up co-opting those attempts into sophisticated tools for minimizing participation and engagement.
Moreover, deeply entrenched political and ideological divisions among the Libyan population, arising primarily from historical grievances and regional disparities, might lead to a profusion of parties with conflicting objectives, adding to the political instability rather than reducing it.
Libya’s societal fabric is also steeped in tribalism and regionalism, potentially exacerbating these disparities and instigating a polarized, irreparably chaotic landscape. In the relatively short period since 2011, Libyan political parties have mainly acted as conduits for regional or tribal biases, thereby adding to the political polarization.
Furthermore, Libya’s security landscape remains saturated with a variety of armed entities, which pose significant threats to the development of a comprehensive political party structure. These groups could either manipulate parties for personal gain or vehemently combat those that undermine their interests (or those of their foreign patrons). This precarious security dynamic will compromise the establishment and preservation of a vibrant party culture.
As Libya navigates these troubled waters, only time will tell whether it is ready to adopt a comprehensive political party culture. The current situation, however, is not promising. After all, Libya’s neighbor, Tunisia, had a fledgling political party culture that emerged after the downfall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, yet that brief courtship — summarily ended by a hyper-presidential power grab — was not devoid of issues.
A persistent lack of public faith in political parties remains evident in both countries, suggesting that the mere establishment of a party system is not sufficient for a thriving democracy, or a panacea for the lack of one.
Historically, Libya’s single-party rule under Qaddafi’s regime inhibited the evolution of mature political discourse. The dearth of political experience and maturity among the populace could therefore impose constraints on the effective operation of political parties.
As such, the prospect of a political party culture in Libya represents a double-edged sword. It offers the promise of democracy, structured governance, and international support, yet it must also confront some difficult challenges, including robust tribalism, powerful armed factions and political immaturity. Striking an equilibrium in this scenario is the formidable, yet crucial, challenge facing the country.
Given these considerations, attempting to answer the question of whether Libya is ready for a political party culture is complicated. There appears to be the potential for its development but significant obstacles need to be addressed.
The immediate concern should not necessarily be whether to establish political parties, but rather how to institutionalize them in such a way that fosters national unity, encourages public trust, ensures representation of diverse interests across Libyan society, and contributes to a sustained democratic transition.
If Libya is to progress toward a functional and inclusive democracy, it needs to confront its historical aversion to organized politics, restore trust in state institutions, and foster a political culture that accommodates its multifaceted identity.
The true sign of readiness, therefore, lies not in the establishment of political parties in and of themselves, but in a willingness and capability to navigate the significant challenges in a collective and collaborative “bottom-up” context.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.